Saturday, 30 September 2017

Debbie Young Debates: Halloween or Guy Fawkes' Night?

photo of Debbie Young outside a Cotswold barn
Cotswold cosy mystery novelist Debbie Young
Writing a series of seven seasonal cosy mysteries, it was a no-brainer to make the second novel, Trick or Murder?, focus on Halloween and Guy Fawkes' Night - two traditions that divide my characters (and my readers) into different camps.

In Trick or Murder?, the strange new vicar makes his mark on the sleepy Cotswold parish of Wendlebury Barrow by banning the PTA Halloween Disco. Realising he may have alienated his congregation before his first service, he tries to redeem himself by inviting them to an impromptu Guy Fawkes' Night party at the vicarage. Naturally, mayhem ensues, during a fun romp that celebrates both traditions.

A fun seasonal read for October
Post-publication, I asked friends which occasion they prefer, and why - asking only British friends because, beyond our shores, Guy Fawkes is unknown, which I allude to in the opening chapter of the book. (I also explain what it is during the course of the story, for readers who know nothing about it.)

Most British friends rejected Halloween as a US import at best - which actually, it's not. 

The Celts exported the ancient post-harvest festival of Samhain to the States, from which it morphed into its present form, before rebounding back to here with new associations. To be honest, I only realised this relatively recently myself, when attending a glorious Samhain celebration at the Scottish Crannog Centre, an Iron-Age settlement recreated on the banks of Loch Tay.

So where do I stand on the issue? 

I have fond memories of childhood Guy Fawkes' parties in our family home, and also of trick-or-treating, American style, when we spent a year in California, when I was eight years old. In the village where I now live, we have both a strong Halloween tradition and an annual community Guy Fawkes party, both of which are much enjoyed by villagers of all ages.

These days both events make me equally uncomfortable for different reasons. 

Modern terrorism makes it hard to embrace a night that focuses on a plot to blow up the cradle of our government, even if what we're celebrating is its thwarting. The notion of burning an effigy of anyone, for any reason, is barbaric.

As to Halloween, I think in our uncertain era, children need to pursue sources of comfort rather than fear - and I don't count comfort-eating vast quantities of sweets as a valid means of guarding themselves against the anxieties thrust upon them by the modern world.

But I don't mean to be a kill-joy - and Trick or Murder? is certainly full of fun. 

I also surprised myself by including an altogether different kind of tradition that wasn't in my original outline for the story: All Souls' Day. It turns out to be a pivotal moment in the plot, falling in between Halloween and Guy Fawkes Night, with important revelations for Sophie on more than one level.

No plot spoilers here, whether or not of the gunpowder kind.

Whatever you plan to celebrate at this time of year, I wish you a happy and peaceful autumn, full of mists and mellow fruitfulness. 

Christmas is coming... (Out 6 November)
As for me, I'm already on to the next season, putting the finishing touches to Murder in the Manger, a kind of Christmas holiday special for Sophie Sayers, with a similar dilemma:

Which should Sophie choose for her first foray into playwriting: traditional pantomime or nativity play? 

She's hoping it won't end up as a farce, especially as she's working with children and animals, not to mention the surprise appearance of some ghosts of the Christmas past who certainly weren't in her script...

To find out more about my books, events, and other news, hop over to my author website: www.authordebbieyoung.com, where you'll also find links to my social media accounts. 

Friday, 29 September 2017

Time to kill: N M Browne

I am having problems with time. For a start, I can’t believe it is blog time again. Nothing says ‘wasted month’ quite like a blog date in
which, yet again there is no news from the coal face. Nope, my novel is still not done, in spite of numerous  attempts at setting a deadline, I am learning, like Douglas Adams, to enjoy the sound of them rushing past. I am in the mid book doldrums and time is not my friend.
  In the book, I fear (as I always do) that nothing happens for far too long and then when it does happen, it is all over too quickly like bad sex or, as I write more battles than sex scenes, a battle where you don’t ever get quite enough bang for your buck. 
   My character is on one of these endless quest type journeys in which time should be of the essence, but he is taking so long to get anywhere that he and I are both worn out. It’s a bit better today as I’ve had him fighting for his life. Again. But I am running out of horrible things to do to him and I’m barely halfway through.
  Then, I have the problem of determining how long all this story stuff actually takes in the sixth century, besides ‘far too long.’  Is it reasonable that a boat should take four days to sail and row from the Thames to Pevensey? Who knows? The answer would seem to be no one. And how long does it take to kill a sheep and spit roast it? Do you need to let it hang for a bit or can it be fast food for a feast? Again, who to ask? And what about portion sizes? Were sheep bigger and appetites smaller or am I going to have to roast six of them? 
   I am so tired of talking ‘moments’ and ‘heart beats’ and ‘instants’ and ‘watches,’ ‘movements of the sun’ and ‘phases of the moon.’ I miss the usefulness of minutes and hours, the sharp decisiveness of ‘five minutes later.’ Story telling needs time, enough for the story to unfold, but also its measured urgency to keep things rolling along. I am becalmed in the slower pace  of  the sixth century, losing my patience and, if you must know, my mind. 
   In life too, writing middles seems to take so much longer than writing beginnings. In fairness, there is much more middle than beginning, but I feel I have been up to my knees in the soggy middle for much longer than usual. Several moons and sunsets and a helluva lot of heart beats, not to mentions sips of wine and coffee spoons. 
   Yet, my character is still trudging on, fighting for his life and, for the moment, winning, and I too am trudging with him, one painful paragraph at a time.

 Sorry.
GTG I’ve shipwrecks to write and time and characters to kill… 

Thursday, 28 September 2017

Short story as an ebook and macaroons from Paris, by Enid Richemont

 A confession - I have never self-published.

All my ebooks are out there because when they went out of print, which to an author is like death, my husband David very expertly re-published them. This has meant that all the cover illustrations were professionally designed (I had to ask permission from the artists involved), so they look pretty good - a great asset for which I claim no credit.

However, recently, I've been thinking of publishing one of my many short stories, a number of which appeared in magazines. One of these stories: The Only Way, was given an unusual full page, black and white illustration which I'd like to use as the base for an ebook cover, but so far the artist: Barbara Anne Taylor, seems to be untraceable, and believe me, I've googled her. She was working successfully in the 70s, and this is the illustration I'd like to use, simply by inserting a title somewhere - what do you think? Would it work?

And, incidentally, do single short stories work as ebooks? How are they priced, when obviously you're getting far fewer pages for your money. Please do comment, and if you can come up with anything on Barbara Anne Taylor, I will be forever grateful. I'd also be grateful for any recommendations for a reasonably-priced self-publishing site, preferably based in the UK, as back-up support with the techie stuff, as, sadly, I no longer have David, and I am a total wuss at it.

At present I am fictionally developing a rather dislikeable small boy who has grievances, many quite unreasonable but understandable, and wondering if I can still get the plot to work as a Middle Grade novel. The engine driving this story is anger which I can feel almost physically. Do dislikeable characters ever survive as main protagonists, or are unlovely traits solely the preserves of villains? The plot's an unusual one, too, and I'm not sure how to pitch it. He does become a lot nicer at the end.

I've just finished reading, for the second time round, Peter Ackroyd's The Clerkenwell Tales. Set in the 14th century, it closely follows the structure of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, with a chapter given to each character, and with all of them gradually meshing. His research of the period is fascinating and so detailed, but I did find that the extensive details, for me, got in the way of the story. He still makes me want to walk those streets around Clerkenwell, though, and the site of the convent with its prophecying nun, Sister Clarice, in the story, is still there - she was real. Our city, like every other city, must be so full of ghosts.

The film I've mentioned here from time to time has progressed to location stuff, and part of it, set in the 16th century, was recently shot at Chavenage House, near Tetbury in Wiltshire - the right period, and the right kind of house. I met the people involved for the first time, not long ago, and they arrived with this glorious box of macaroons from Paris. which I had to photograph and post - well, wouldn't you? I'm sorry current technology won't allow you to reach out a hand and help yourself, but believe me, they tasted every bit as good as they look! The very dark ones were flavoured with black pepper - an amazing taste. 

Please visit my website at: www.enidrichemont.org.uk

My Facebook page is: Enid Richemont Children's Author


Wednesday, 27 September 2017

The Mid-Book Blues - Andrew Crofts


Writing books is one of the most enjoyable and rewarding ways to earn a living and I can’t imagine ever doing anything else. That does not mean, however, that every part of the operation is a joy. As with any large scale endeavour, from creating a garden to running a marathon, from being a rock star to being a prince of the realm, there are times where the effort and the monotony of the job feel crushing.

The blues usually strike me about half way through the writing process. All too often, I believe, the books which the market has traditionally demanded are longer than their subject matter merits. If you write tightly and edit well as you go along you can often tell a story very effectively in thirty to fifty thousand words. (“The Turn of the Screw”, “Animal Farm”, “Of Mice and Men”, “The Great Gatsby”, “Death in Venice”, “Heart of Darkness”, “The Picture of Dorian Gray” … I could go on). Publishers and readers, however, have been accustomed for many years to books that are eighty to a hundred and fifty thousand words – and sometimes longer. Designed originally to work well as parcels in the American postal system at the end of the nineteenth century, they are simply the size and shape that people have grown used to and therefore expect.

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Imagine that you have been commissioned to write a blockbuster thriller which will go out under the name of a famous author who always produces books that are at least four hundred pages long, (around a hundred and fifty thousand words). The plot that has been worked out is great, the characters are strong and you’ve managed to tell the whole thing very succinctly and elegantly in fifty thousand words.

That is the morning when you wake up to the realisation that you now have to find another hundred thousand words without ruining the tension, without losing the attention of the readers and without waffling.

Waffling is easy of course, and by no means an unpleasant way to earn a living, but if you do that you will only have to go back and cut it all out again later, losing thousands of valuable words and dozens of valuable man-hours and severely endangering your will to live.

Like any marathon runner you have to put your head down and keep powering on, but you then become obsessed with word-counts; constantly checking how many words you have done that day, (or in the last ten minutes), working out how many more days you need if you continue at that rate, forcing yourself to stay at the screen for just one more hour, then just one more, agonising every time you have to cut something out and the word-count drops by even a few dozen. The days seem to stretch out ahead forever.

Like the marathon runner however, and the patient gardener, perseverance and professionalism always pay off and you eventually come out of the darkness of winter into the sunshine once more. The finishing line comes in sight and you are able to sprint to the end, refreshed by the rush of adrenaline and the bloom of another spring, ready and enthusiastic to start on the next book, all memories of the blue days forgotten.

Maybe this is a good moment to confess to another sin; the sin of envy. I can’t help but imagine how glorious it must be to be one of those immortal songwriters who you hear talking about how they penned their most famous track in a matter of minutes, creating a perfect little masterpiece that will be paying them and their descendents royalties for years to come. Imagine for a moment being Ray Davies and dashing off masterpieces like “Waterloo Sunset”, “Lola” and “Sunny Afternoon”. Not only do you then have the rest of the day to please yourself, you also get to sing your stories in front of hundreds of thousands of adoring fans. Contrast that with the long haul of the book writer who is then lucky if he can persuade half a dozen people to turn up to a reading in a bookshop. Envious? I’m positively mint green.

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Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Worshipping Knowledge: Dipika Mukherjee looks at Churches in the Netherlands


I find the Dutch very pragmatic and therefore easy to work with: What You See Is What You Get. So when the International Institute of Asian Studies (a fabulous research institute I have been affiliated to since 2007) offered me a place to work for two months, I accepted readily.

This country is also a very picturesque part of the world; Amsterdam offers picture-perfect views of soaring spires and ancient churches at almost every turn of a canal. However, a large number of these churches are no longer houses for worship, but event spaces. 

Last week, when I was in Maastricht to catch up with a writer buddy, we stopped at the world’s finest bookstore located inside – what else? – a fabulous old church. This bookstore, inside a 13th century Dominican church, is a branch of the popular Dutch bookstore chain Selexyz. Built in 1294, the cathedral now soars above the three-storied bookstore, with plenty of open spaces for readers to browse. There is a café in the corner, but despite this being a weekday afternoon, we could not get a seat. 

Converting this rarely-used Church into a bookstore may have seemed heretical to some, but it now seems such a sensible idea. When Maastricht was invaded by Napoleon in 1794 and the Dominicans forced out of the country, the church had been briefly used as a parish, but then fell into neglect as a warehouse, an archive, and finally a giant parking lot for bicycles. The bookstore’s thoughtful renovation of an ancient space is ongoing, and has certainly given the awe-inspiring 14th century ceiling frescoes a new lease of life

On September 14th, the new Asian Library at the University of Leiden had an official opening in the iconic Pieterskerk of Leiden. Queen Máxima, as the patroness of the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV), presided over the opening ceremony at this late-Gothic church in Leiden dedicated to Saint Peter. The history of this church can be traced back to 1100 and Pieterskerk is also known as the church of the Pilgrim Fathers (the pastor John Robinson was buried here). The early European settlers of what is now Plymouth, in Massachusetts, had fled England for the relative tolerance of 16th–17th century Holland, and then continued to North America, where they established a colony in 1620.
However, Pieterskerk wears its long history lightly and now largely functions as a space for university and community events

Leiden University was founded in 1575 and has several ancient buildings within its own campus, but choosing this ancient church for the inaugural event gave the occasion an added gravitas. Within Pieterskerk, in this grand space dating back to 1100, under the vaulted ceilings and lush lighting, the Queen and the audience listened to speeches about the importance of libraries and international collaborative research, from the time of the Silk Routes and beyond.

I was delighted to see, during a visit to the Amsterdam University Press offices in Amsterdam, stained-glass windows celebrating reading and music in the way that churches once deified saints and messiahs. 

Many ancient civilizations -- including the Chinese, Indian, Norse, Japanese, Persian, Armenian, Mongols, Egyptians -- had Deities of Knowledge. Perhaps we should all venerate the search for knowledge in the same way we venerate our religious convictions.  

The world may even become a kinder, wiser place.




Dipika Mukherjee is an author and sociolinguist. 

Monday, 25 September 2017

Pop It In Your Tummy - by Susan Price

There are some words which, for me, are annoying almost beyond words.

'Tummy' is the worst, especially when used by adults. Even the dictionary defines it as 'childish' and says it derives from a child's pronunciation of 'stomach.' The word to use instead of the horrible 'tummy' is, I think, 'belly.' That's your belly there, hanging out in front of you. It has your belly-button in it. You can do a belly-dance with it. Should you wish.

The 'y' ending might suggest that it's just as childish as (I screw my face up in distaste) 'tummy' but it is not. 'Belly' is an Old English word, worthy of respect for its age: belig, meaning 'bag.' That 'g' at the end of belig would have been soft, pronounced like our 'y' and so it's come down to us as 'belly.'

I might be wrong about this, but I've been given the impression over the years, that many people think there's something a bit indecent about 'belly.' It's a bit too fleshy, slightly rude.

For instance, there's Marlowe's lip-smacking description of Leander:

His body was as straight as Circe's wand;
Jove might have sipped out nectar from his hand.
Even as delicious meat is to the taste,
So was his neck in touching, and surpassed
The white of Pelop's shoulder. I could tell ye
How smooth his breast was and how white his belly;
And whose immortal fingers did imprint
That heavenly path with many a curious dint
That runs along his back... 


When you say 'belly' the sound starts with a plosive at the lips and then moves to a sort of cough at the back of the throat before rolling out the final 'y.' It has a fleshy and sensuous sound to it.

Whereas, with 'tummy' the mouth purses. It has a mealy-mouthed prissiness about it. And I hate it. Leave it to two-year olds. Or, better, teach them to say 'belly.' (It often makes them fall about laughing, I find. Which further suggests that adults have taught them it's 'rude.')

Another word that makes me grit my teeth is 'pop.' I don't mean 'pop' as in, 'the balloon popped' or even, 'pop went the weasel.' I mean 'pop' as used by every TV cook: 'Just pop it in the oven - pop it in the micro-wave - pop it in the bowl - pop it under the grill...' 


A weasel, just popping out to find something to pop in its tummy. (Wiki commons Hillebrand Steve.) 

Pop, pop, pop. Within moments I am chucking things at the screen and yelling, "'Put!' Say 'put'! Saying 'pop' doesn't make it any more %£*&% interesting.'" Except in my house.

Honestly, all those cheery TV presenters saying, 'If you're popping out' and 'just pop us a line' and 'let's pop over' make me want to pop them one.

I asked those unlucky enough to be near me if there are any words which get their goats.

My Scots partner is incensed by the words which his Scrabble dictionary claims are 'Scots' and therefore somehow allowable while most of my English but Black Country words (fowd, jowel, whum) aren't.

'Aa' for instance, and 'em' which means 'uncle.' He's never in his life heard anyone use nine-tenths of them, even in deepest Scotland, and it annoys him that the Scrabble dictionary claims to know his la'land better than he does. Every time he uses one of these words to score 438 points and win another game he complains about it being made up. He suspects Walter Scott of being the culprit, as he cherishes an especial dislike of old Walter as a 'tartaneer' and professional Scot. (When I broke it to him that 'em' is Middle English and used by Chaucer in Troilus and Criseyde, it only made him madder.)

One of my brothers grits his teeth every time he hears 'lever' and 'leverage' pronounced with the first 'e' short and hard. The words, he says, are 'lee-ver' and 'lee-ver-idge.'

Not 'lev-ah-ridge.'



With a lee-ver, he can move the world. If he uses a lev-er, my brother will shove him off that cliff.

Does all American pronunciation annoy him, then? No, it seems not. Just that one word.

I never said it was rational.

I hand over to you. What words annoy you beyond all reason? Or without reason?

Sunday, 24 September 2017

When we put down our pens for the last time ... Jo Carroll

Last week I spent a few days looking after someone who is terminally ill so her partner could have a break. 

It was a quiet, reflective few days - for both of us. She spent a lot of time talking about her working life, the friends she has made and the legacy she leaves behind in her field. (I'll not tell you more than that as it would make her identifiable and I don't have her permission). She is - rightly - hugely proud of everything she has achieved and has been able to live long enough to see that systems are in place for her to be remembered, and celebrated, for all she has done.

She has no children. I have no idea if there were decisions behind that or if it is happenstance - though it did make me wonder if her need to talk about her working life would have been as urgent if she had children and maybe grandchildren to pass her baton to.

Which set me wondering. As writers, we will - inevitably in this digital age - leave our words behind. But, when stripped away, how do we want to be remembered? As writers? As mothers? Fathers? Sisters? Brothers? Bloody good friends? A bit of a laugh? Could be prickly but fine when you got to know her? Grumpy old sod? Maybe some people are more than happy to slip of this mortal coil and be forgotten?

I suspect there are as many answers to this as there are people. And maybe our answers change at different stages of our lives.

But as writers I wonder if it has a different significance. By publishing our efforts we are, maybe without meaning to, saying something about ourselves and our view of the world that will linger while we're busy pushing up daisies. And some of our readers might come to believe that our writing is all there is to say about us.


Which, I suppose, all comes back to why we write in the first place. Me - I write because I love it. I travel because I love it. As I spend time with friends and family because I love them, too - and that feels more important to me. But that's just my story. Yours may be very different.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

On Writing Good Bad Guys by Lev Butts

One of the things I am asked most often on writing panels and workshops is how to create intriguing bad guys. What they are really asking me, I've come to understand, is how to create antagonists as interesting to the reader as the hero. An effective protagonist needs to have a worthy antagonist. The antagonist needs to present our hero with a seemingly insurmountable obstacle such that the audience can reasonably expect failure and be impressed with the virtues of the hero once he or she overcomes them.

This antagonist can come in all shapes and sizes depending on the plot of your story. According to current narrative theory, there are only six basic conflicts in Western literature:

  • Man v. Man 
  • Man v. Self 
  • Man v. Society
  • Man v. Nature 
  • Man v. God 
  • Man v. Monster*

If your antagonist is Society, Nature, or God, your antagonist is pretty much set for you. You need only tweak the characteristics that are germane to your plot. If your antagonist is also the protagonists, again the work is already done. However, if your antagonist falls in any other category, creating a compelling antagonist can require particular care lest the character devolve into a two-dimensional caricature.

Think of the most effective antagonists in literature and film.

These are the ones that Spring to mind for me:

Darth Vader

The Joker

Lord Voldemort

Hannibal Lecter

Mr. Edward Hyde

Professor Moriarty
While most people would agree that these are among the greatest villains in the Western canon, many would say that they have one thing in common that explains their stature as the best of English baddies.

Through a Mirror Darkly

Each of these antagonists in some way acts as a dark mirror of their respective protagonist. Darth Vader, for example, represents the worst-case scenario should Luke Skywalker go of the rails.  The Joker represents unrestrained id to Batman's overly constricted superego. Voldemort was a promising young wizard, abandoned by his family and raised in orphanage until his acceptance to Hogwarts. He is quite literally mirror image of Harry Potter: actually orphaned and raised in neglect by his extended family, but also a promising young wizard when he is accepted at Hogwarts.

Similarly, Hannibal Lecter represents the darkest murderous desires of both his protagonists: Will Graham in Red Dragon and Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal. Edward Hyde, too, is quite literally every negative emotion of Dr. Henry Jekyll partitioned off and given human form. Professor James Moriarty, the so-called Napoleon of Crime, is every bit Sherlock Holmes' intellectual equal and represents what would happen if Holmes were to turn his talents to crime instead of justice.

This mirroring effect creates a dynamic tension between antagonist and protagonist that closely mirrors the tension found in a Man v. Self conflict. The protagonist's triumph then becomes a metaphor for a triumph of their own shortcomings and fatal flaws. Now, I am not saying that this quality is unimportant in creating effective villains. I am saying though, that there is another quality shared by the most memorable antagonists that I find much more important.

We Can Be Heroes

When I am asked how to write compelling bad guys, my go-to answer is simple: When you are writing your antagonist, remember that he or she is the protagonist of his or her own story. When I write about Red Marten in Guns of the Waste Land, for instance, I have to remind myself that he doesn't know he's the villain. As far as he is concerned, his duty is to save his people, the Aticota tribe from annihilation, even if that means destroying every settler in Texas. When I write for Marten, then, Ardiss and Percy and Gary Wayne are the antagonists, the bad guys.

The same holds true for the villains above. Darth Vader is trying to bring peace and order to the galaxy, through the iron fist authoritarianism, true, but his goals are, for him, pure ones. The Joker sees chaos as the ultimate freedom, forcing people to confront their own desires directly instead of sublimating them in the name of a faked order and rigid control. Similarly, Hannibal Lecter wants only for Will and Clarice, whom he sees as his erstwhile "patients," to embrace the whole of their psyches instead of constantly sublimating what they want to do in order to do what they think they must (also he really hates rudeness). Voldemort sees himself as purifying magic after it has become watered down by allowing the wizard children of mundane humanity too much leeway. Edward Hyde is literally doing what he was created to do: He acts upon all of Jekyll's negative emotions so that the good doctor doesn't have to. Professor Moriarty, at least in my head-canon, is simply trying to make ends meet as best he can considering that public college professors don't make enough to feed church-mice.

To be clear, I'm not saying that every villain's goals are objectively noble and pure, just that they are subjectively noble and pure for them. If done well, even the most vile of bad guys can be at least somewhat sympathetic, and as a result, much more effective than simply anthropomorphizing Dr. Seuss' Grinch. As Atticus Finch would say, I have to walk in their shoes for a while. As Ed Gein would say, I have to put on their skins.

Winner: Taxidermist of the Year, 1957
Indeed, when done well, this technique can make even Ed Gein, The Butcher of Plainfield, a fascinating and somewhat sympathetic character. If done incredibly well, the line between protagonist and antagonist can become so nebulous as to be nonexistent. This has, in fact, already been done with Gein:

Winner: Taxidermist of the Year, 1961
Norman Bates was a fictionalized version of Gein. While he's often considered one of the first slasher villains, I dare you to watch all four films and/or the recent television reimagining, Bates Motel and not walk away feeling that the actual serial killer was the true protagonist and the most tragic victim.

Winner: Taxidermist of the Year, 2013-2017
So that's it, my secret for writing good bad guys. When I write my villains, I have to pretend that their goals are also mine and write their story accordingly. It's really the only way to do an antagonist well. If you do that, everything else falls into place.


Friday, 22 September 2017

Is your prologue hook, line or stinker? Ali Bacon considers the chances

Prologues - why not jump right in? 
Prologues in fiction are popular with writers, though less so with readers, and I am of that very ilk. There’s nothing more likely to raise my hackles when I pick up a book than a few pages headed PrologueBefore, Then, or In the Beginning. And regardless of the fact I have read many good books with prologues, there’s always the suspicion that here comes something not strictly necessary, something holding up the story we’re about to step into. So why take the risk of putting your reader off on page 1?

Let’s think about the nature of the conventional prologue. First of all why is it there?  
1)     To create atmosphere and suspense – my mystery takes a few chapters to set things up,  let’s flag up what's coming or get a bit of creepiness/excitement in at the start.
2)     Because it’s in a different timeline – if the reader is going to understand the plot they need to know something that happened a long time before (or possibly after) the main sequence of events so let’s get it in right at the start (and if it’s something dramatic so much the better).
3)     Wow factor – whatever my book is like, I have given it a humdinger of an opening .

Image credit*
With the possible exception of 3 (improve rest of book, please!) these are all valid ways to open a novel, so what’s the problem? Partly it’s the issue of ‘promise to the reader’ i.e. expectations are set by the title, book cover and opening pages.  If the prologue is too far from expectations set by title, cover and blurb, it has failed to do its job of hooking the reader in. Conversely if the prologue is a marvellous hook but isn't backed up by the opening chapter, that will  feel like a let-down. 

A prologue needs to have impact but not so much as to overshadow everything that comes next. A particular dislike of mine is a prologue where the character carrying the narrative (first person or third) comes to a sticky end. This of course serves up a bucketful of atmosphere and in a detective mystery provides the 'inciting incident'. But excuse me, I’ve just spent several minutes investing in a character who isn’t going to appear again.
I recently encountered this in Sarah Perry’s marvellous, The Essex Serpent which opens like this:
 " A young man walks down by the banks of the Blackwater under a full cold moon... 
... the gulls lift off one by one, and the last gives a scream of dismay."
Great writing actually (this is a tiny snippet) but clearly this is not going to end well, equally clearly this not going to be the main character. So why oh why …?

Luckily I persevered because it’s a great book, but I think I would happily have begun with the next chapter where we meet the intriguing Cora and her doctor. She after all is the one who matters

I blame the school of 'show not tell' for the popularity of prologues. If there’s information we need to impart early on, we don’t have to tease it out through a whole scene and overlay it with description and drama. My recent sojourn in the land of short story judging has made me a huge fan of clarity, of a line of exposition (shock horror!) to set the scene. ‘It was the summer of 1916’ is so much more refreshing than a paragraph of emotion-infested weather and a picnic on the lawn. You can have the picnic by the way, just tell us when and where we are!

But I digress.  One good thing about prologues is that they are short - or shortish. (From which my cynical self infers the author is worried about holding things up for to long!)  I can also let you into the secret. In the Blink of an Eye had a prologue ( of the ‘flash forward’ variety) which simply grew too long to be a prologue. The longer it got, the more I saw it wasn’t an adjunct to the book  but part of the whole, its keystone in fact. It became the first chapter . It grew some more. The end of it became the last chapter. Dare I say epilogue?! 

So can the P word always be avoided? Maybe not, but there’s a lot to be said for making sure it’s needed and keyed into the narrative rather than something prefatory.  Just this week I was at a talk by best-selling  thriller writer Gilly MacmiIlan. An audience member asked her how she knew where to start her stories, to which she replied she started with the bit that affected her most deeply, even if she had to ‘fiddle with the timeline’.
I can report that the opening of her forthcoming novel, which she read out, is riveting.  I’m pretty sure it isn’t called ‘prologue’.

Ali Bacon writes contemporary and historical fiction. Her new novel In the Blink of an 
Eye, about a Scottish artist who assists with the birth of photography, will be published by Linen Press in 2018. 

Ali with photographs by Hill and Adamson, subjects of her new book 


*Image credit: By Gustave Dore - Gustave Dore, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47206396


Thursday, 21 September 2017

Life, uninterrupted - Katherine Roberts

Since the beginning of August, I have been without incoming calls on my landline. I can call out with no problem, and the broadband is (mostly) there when I want it, but hardly anyone can actually call me. Ringing my number results in a message saying "you have dialled an incorrect number" or "invalid number" or  - rather more cryptically - three electronic beeps. The only exception to this rule seems to be when my phone provider rings to test the line or to apologize - they can get through just fine. Rather annoyingly, as it turns out, so can other call centres (so far a couple of random telemarketers and a robot survey) - although I have to admit things have been rather peaceful on the unsolicited calls front lately, so I assume most of them are getting blocked, just like my friends and family. The saga of investigations into this mysterious phenomenon could fill a whole book. Suffice to say that I have almost forgotten what my landline phone sounds like, to such an extent that when it does ring it takes me several seconds to identify the annoying noise, and then I think "YES! IT'S WORKING AGAIN!" - only to be disappointed when it turns out to be yet another automated test by my telecoms provider.

This experience, while deeply frustrating, has actually been quite revealing.
I don't get bothered by that many calls at home, but usually at least one unsolicited marketing call manages to sneak past my anonymous caller reject and blocked numbers list during the course of a day. Mum has a strange habit of calling for a chat when I'm in the middle of cooking supper or am in the attic at the top of a ladder... and then, of course, there are the estate agents trying to sell me a house, or still trying to sell mine (see last month's post). I had no idea how intrusive such calls can be - until they stopped. Suddenly, I found I could sit down at my computer to write without the fear of being interrupted by a ringing phone. I could take a candlelit bath without wondering whose call was being picked up by the answerphone, and if it was urgent enough that I should cut short my soak to answer. I use caller display to screen calls at home, but that's not the point - the very fact the phone rings can be intrusion enough to disturb a creative thought and kill it stone dead.

I do have a mobile phone, but I'm one of those annoying people who keep it turned off most of the time. I turn on my mobile only if I need to make a call, or if am on my way to meet someone and they might want to call me. In other words, I keep it for emergencies and deal with calls in the same way I dealt with emails when I only had dial-up. With no landline, I was tempted to leave my mobile on all the time as a substitute (since, obviously, not having a working phone line is a MAJOR EMERGENCY), until I realized this would be the perfect opportunity to experiment. If I were a nurse on call, or a fireman on duty (i.e. people dealing with real emergencies) things would be different. But I am a fantasy author, and not a very well known one. The chances of Hollywood calling me, or my agent needing my answer on a multi-million-dollar foreign rights offer before the day is over, are - let's face it - pretty slim. And who else is likely to phone me? The scammer supposedly from Microsoft offering to sort out my 'windows computer' problems can wait. So can the nosy robot survey wanting to know if I am on benefits. Even my phone provider, calling to assure me they are looking into my issue, does not need an immediate answer, especially as it has already taken them nearly two months to identify the problem, and goodness knows how much longer it'll be before they actually fix it. Yes, I would be upset to miss a friend calling, but a true friend will call back - or leave a message for me to call them later.

Where did this requirement to be contactable 24 hours a day, seven days a week, come from? When I was growing up in the 1970s, we did not even have a landline at home. Granted, we were a little behind the times, but I think my dad had nightmares of his teenage daughter on the phone all evening running up his phone bill. So I had to go to the call box on the corner and feed the public phone box with coins if I wanted to phone my friends. Naturally, we had no email - and the internet had not been invented. If we lived too far away to meet easily, we wrote letters (by hand) and posted them to each other and thought nothing of waiting a couple of days for a reply. When I wrote my first novel, I sent the manuscript to my publisher by post, printed out on half a ream of paper, and my editor worked through the marked-up text with me in a face-to-face meeting (since tracked changes had not been invented, either... bliss!). And did these methods take any longer? No, not at all. In fact - weirdly - now that we have 'instant' emails and mobile phones and are contactable 24 hours a day seven days a week, often a letter will invoke a much faster response. Perhaps it's the novelty value? But I suspect that, in reality, humans can only do so much at once, and expecting an instant response to an email, or even a phone call, is unrealistic. Most things just are not that urgent.

I have survived the past two months. Despite giving the poor, hard-working staff at my telecom provider's call centre a piece of my mind whenever I feel an urge to listen to half an hour or so of recorded music, I am secretly quite enjoying the unaccustomed peace and ability to control interruptions to my writing and my life. It is rather like going on holiday some place remote, where you get limited or zero mobile coverage and no wi-fi signal. Possibly not practical in the long term, at least not until I'm old enough to disappear off-grid completely, but it has certainly made me think about how even fairly limited interruptions, that come at unscheduled and unexpected times, can affect creative work and well-being.

Truth is, the fear of being interrupted is just as bad as the interruption itself. For example, it's extremely unlikely my mum will fall down the stairs (particularly as she lives in a bungalow), but I can quite happily spend all day worrying that she will, and that the next time my phone rings it will be someone telling me she's been rushed into hospital. I imagine it is a similar thing, only the other way around, for mothers when their children are away from home for the first time. It is even more unlikely that someone will call to tell me I have won the lottery, but the worry of missing such a call might well keep me connected 24 hours a day, seven days a week. On a lower level, the fear of missing my friend's good news will keep me religiously checking Facebook every morning... okay, every hour... and meanwhile, those pesky robots and scammers and telemarketers will take advantage of all this contact-anxiety to worm their way into my life.

Perhaps, instead of demanding compensation for not having incoming calls for nearly two months, I should be thanking my telephone provider for reminding me how much more relaxed we all were in the days when we didn't know (or, as a result, really care) what everyone else was doing, and could just get on with life, uninterrupted.
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Katherine Roberts writes fantasy and historical fiction with a focus on legend and myth for young readers. Her backlist titles, originally published by Harper Collins and Chicken House, are now available as print on demand paperbacks. Find all the links at www.katherineroberts.co.uk